Why I Love the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

By Will Smith

Today is Towel Day, the annual remembrance and celebration of Douglas Adams, whose work had a profound effect on my life.

Today is Towel Day, so I want to talk about one of my heroes, Douglas Adams, a bit. I first read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when I was about ten years old. One of my parent's friends gave me a copy when we were visiting them during summer vacation. She said it was a bit subversive, but she thought I'd probably like it.

I liked it so much I wore that copy out.

In the intervening decades, I've re-read the books several more times, and picked up different things as I've gotten older. The appeal remains that Arthur Dent is an oblivious twit, the ultimate outsider, exploring an incomprehensible world. The wonders of the universe lay before him, but all he really wants is a cup of tea.

Photo Credit: douglasadams.com

The genius of Adams was his ability to point out the absurdity of science fiction while simultaneously pointing out the absurdity of modern life, and digital watches. Everything was fair game, and with it came wisdom about many aspects of modern life. One of my favorite passages explains the real function of warning messages. It's from Mostly Harmless--the fifth book in the trilogy:

...all mechanical or electrical or quantum-mechanical or hydraulic or even wind-, steam- or piston-driven devices, are now required to have a certain legend emblazoned on them somewhere. It doesn't matter how small the object is, the designers of the object have got to find a way of squeezing the legend in somewhere, because it is their attention which is being drawn to it rather than necessarily that of the user's.
The legend is this:
"The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair."

Where much of the contemporary science fiction from the late 70s and early 80s has aged poorly, Adams was prescient. He imagined a world filled with ubiquitous information, even if it was frequently apocryphal. The Guide is essentially a modern smartphone--connected to a larger wireless network from anywhere. It's impossible to say whether the Hitchhiker's Guide predicted the modern smartphone and tablet, or if modern designers just wanted to build a Guide analog.

What I can say is that early exposure to Douglas Adams' work had a profound influence on the way I see the world. Instead of accepting surface explanations, he showed me that there's usually something interesting, weird, or funny if you can teach yourself to look at everything just a little bit sideways.

More importantly for a kid who wouldn't see The Breakfast Club or Better Off Dead for another five years, the existence of the Guide let me know that there were other people out there like me. Arthur Dent let me know that being surrounded by people who didn't look like me or care about the same things is a vital part of the human condition.

If you haven't read the books, you can buy them all for your ebook reader for $13, or borrow a dead tree copy from a friend. Likewise, the radio series is wonderful, somewhat more madcap, and tells a more or less completely different story.

Photo Credit: Flickr user norrix via Creative Commons

I can't recommend them highly enough, but even if you don't want to read the books, the best advice is printed on the cover (apparently you can get it on towels now too).